I have not missed a spring musical at my community’s high school in twenty-two years. Out of each show’s six scheduled performances, the best to attend is the second, Saturday night. The students have yet grown worn or gone rote; they remain rich with anticipation and nerve. But the warbles and half-steps of night one are gone. The late entrances, the jolted eyes, static-shocked at the remembrance of a line. Lights corrected, microphones fixed. The center-stage hole patched with sheets of plywood and a thin apology from set designer Mr. Maplewood. That cavernous pit into which actors plunge and disappear on night one, forcing their understudies into baggy costumes, is now all sealed up. Gone are the screams and wails of night one, when the senior boy with the teeth and the girl with the hair trip and fall forty feet down into that wet dark dirt. No thud. Skin on skin, their bodies caught in the arms of the alumni in the hole. Living there, thriving there, developing their skills, putting on pitch-black plays for their infrared eyes, becoming master thespians in invented tongues over years and decades unburdened by homework and college and jobs. Subsisting on backstage snacks Maplewood kicks down, they are pure. They are actors. By night two the terror of night one fades. Sophomores are stars. They dance on the plywood, stomp over the cave, put on the show of their life pretending they don’t want to fall in. Kicking those boards harder and harder, praying for a crack and a split and a fall. Keeping their eyes forward and smiles up while wishing to give themselves to the hole. From the front row to the balcony, we in the audience are part of the cast. Acting as if we are bothered by the pit, putting on masks of disgust, acting as if we do not want the pit to open back up, pretending we do not respect the hole and know it is best, better than Juilliard, better than Yale, pretending we do not think of it as we fall asleep, praying we, too, may fall through its splintery roof and wake in its wet and dark embrace.
Push-ups on your bedroom floor. Twenty, then twenty-five, forty. Feel your muscles grow sore. New lines in your triceps and shoulders. Notice your verve. Notice the the itch of the carpet on your fingertips. Notice the dirt in the carpet, and the dried roach, and the serpent. The serpent. Hissing at you from under the bed. Coiled and slick and fat as a tire. His black diamond head as big as yours. His eyes open, red spotlights on your skin. He bares his fangs, licks his evil teeth. Notice his tongue, thin and purple like a vein, like a knot, like a noose. Notice the bed, raised three feet on his hump. Notice the shape of the hump, consider what it reminds you of. Your brother. Missing since Monday. Hear the serpent and convince yourself he did not hiss, “You’re next.” Head down. Pay attention to your form. Notice the color of the carpet. Stare at the carpet and only the carpet. Convince yourself you saw nothing. Convince yourself the carpet is beige and everything is okay. Ten more push-ups, notice the stretch in your biceps and back. Ten more, and then ten, and your head is clear. Stand up, cross today off your calendar, and notice the pump in your chest, the satisfaction of hard work, how good it feels to close your eyes and plug your fingers in your ears and walk out of your bedroom shouting, over and over, “There is no snake.”
My boyfriend takes the stairs three at a time because he is an athlete and he is a man. The lunch bell rings and he takes off and the tubes of his long silky basketball shorts rub. He fires past the other boys, pushes the twins to the ground, bounds skyward in triplicate. Hup, hup, hup, hup, on the 200 level in four strides. He pants and I swoon and my girlfriends look at me, so jealous and wanting.
Well my boyfriend takes them four at a time. He attended a soccer clinic over the summer taught by a former professional and he came back twice as lithe and limber. Your boyfriend huffs and sweats and my boyfriend laughs. The second bell fires and there he goes, a lightning streak on the concrete patio, roaring up those metal stairs by four — one, two, three and he’s done. Looking down on the other boys, the drop of sweat on his forehead. He wipes it with the bottom of his t-shirt and we see the new hairs under his belly button. Coo all you like, girls. He knows he’s mine.
Well, I didn’t have to say it before, but if he’s really pushed and has proper motivation my boyfriend can do five stairs at a time.
Just do it, okay? You can do it. It’s just two more than three. Jump faster or whatever.
I don’t think I can. I don’t want to.
Are you serious?
Why are we doing this?
We’re done if you don’t do five at a time. Done. Breaking up. I’ll go out with Douglas next. Or James. I don’t care. Anyone but you if you humiliate me in front of my girlfriends.
My boyfriend takes the stairs five at a time because he is the most athletic boy in the grade. He stretches his lean legs in his silky shorts, deep breaths, crosses himself, kisses his hand, holds it to god. Vice Principal Graves yells that we’re all late for fifth period and we make him think he does not exist. My boyfriend’s eyes lock on the stairs and he ignites, a bullet to his target, he springs skyward and past two, three four — five! and clang! Right knee hammers the stair, instant bumblebee bruise. But the left shoe cleared stair five. He did five! I told you all, my boyfriend does five.
So my boyfriend will do six. Who cares about five? Five is peanuts, it’s limp, it’s nothing.
What are you talking about? I can’t do six.
Just do six. I insist.
Please, do not make me do six. Let me do anything else. Paint my nails. Braid my hair.
It’s an ultimatum. Six.
My boyfriend rubs his face like he’s kneading dough. Stares into the trees, face red and flat. Eyes dead. An adult’s eyes. I’m making a man of him. My dad says a man makes tough decisions. He does hard things and hopes he gets it right. My boyfriend whips around and charges for the stairs. Kids clear the way and watch and he launches his long legs up into the air and my heart swells and our class holds our collective breath and crack! His left shin shatters. Hammer to a fluorescent light tube. His leg a horrible slime purple mess of knotted skin and ungraphable angles. He’s on his back, head at the bottom. But his right shoe rests on step number six. My man did it.
And so seven shall be done. Boyfriend?
Seven shall be done.
Kids have come out from their classrooms. All eighteen-hundred students crowd the staircase. Seven, they chant. Seven. Seven.
I am going to die, my boyfriend says, and I know I love him. He has accepted the hard truth of life. He is a man. My boyfriend’s friends hug him and kiss his cheek and share stories of the times they laughed. Vice Principal Graves reads my boyfriend his last rites from a yellowed page from his wallet. The chanting stops and it’s just the wind whispering. My boyfriend shuts his eyes and runs so hard, so mad at that staircase, but as he takes off into the sky his face brightens and he knows joy for a moment, the joy of a challenge, of achievement, and his last outfit’s a smile as he slams his forehead into that top stair and dies in a pop-geyser of hot blood.
The janitor folds him into the trash and fifth period begins.
My boyfriend gave me more than your boyfriend or your boyfriend or your boyfriend ever will. He gave himself for me, and for the rest of my life I’ll never again know true love like we had.
But all of you will never know it at all.